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Spring House Calls bridge gap between medical school, community

Apr. 11, 2013

Spring has finally sprung, and students from the IU School of Medicine got into the spirit with planting, mulching and other tasks at the home of nearly 30 residents in the Haughville, Blackburn and near east neighborhoods of Indianapolis.

More than 100 medical students, faculty, staff and friends took part April 6 in the 18th Annual Spring House Calls, a student-led event that reaches out a helping hand to elderly, disabled or minority homeowners. The event is the oldest and longest-running medical service-learning project at the IU School of Medicine.

“This whole event’s about just saying hello and showing that we care about the people in our communities on several levels -- not just their medical care,” said Braca Benizry Cantor, a third-year medical student and co-chair of the project. “Even if it’s not us they see next time they go to the doctor, we want to convey the message that future physicians want to help out -- to build or reinforce a sense of trust and connection between patients and physicians.”

This is the first year students have taken their “house calls” to the near east side, where they established a free clinic nearly six years ago at the Neighborhood Fellowship Church, whose leader, Rev. Jim Strietelmeier worked with the event organizers to identify homeowners and to designate landscaping projects in the neighborhood. Sanda Curd, leader of the senior center at Christamore House Family and Community Center in Indianapolis, helped identify residents in the Haughville and Brackburn neighborhhoods.

"I was excited to introduce the near east side as a new site this year given our history of work there with the IU Student Outreach Clinic,” said Ethan Morrical, a fourth-year medical student and co-chair of the event. “I also just think it's a great way to engage some of the communities we serve in our clinics and hospitals; Haughville is right across the river from the medical school campus.”

Students began the day at 8:30 a.m. at the Christamore House, and then proceeded to their appointed homes to remove weeds, plant flowers, mulch and perform other landscaping tasks. The weather on Saturday was perfect for planting, but students participate every year -- rain or shine.

“Every year it’s pretty muddy,” laughs Cantor, a regular volunteer at the event. “We’ve done it in year’s past even if it’s raining. We’ve been out in the pounding rain and still planting flowers, totally soaked.”

Although most students admitted the chance to trade the exam book and library for a trowel and some fresh air was part of the appeal, they were also quick to point out that the most important part of the event is the chance to reach out to the community.

“I like being involved,” said Alissa Bishel, a second-year medical student, who spent the morning pulling weeds, picking up trash, planting flowers and putting down new mulch. “This event really helps keep us connected to the community and to invest some of ourselves into making Indianapolis great.”

Added Kristin Geros, a second year medical student: “We spend a lot of time in the classroom the first two years, unfortunately, but Spring House Calls and other service learning projects are a great way to take some time to both fulfill our desire to volunteer as well as help make a difference in our community.”

Cantor also noted the volunteers enjoyed the chance to speak to the homeowners, many who come out to offer some instruction or express thanks.

“They always come out to converse with us and keep us company, and give us advice on where to plant the flowers,” she said. “They know that most of us are medical students, but this is really a chance to form a relationship outside the clinic where they may be asked to participate in a physical exam -- or provide very detailed history about very private information.”

Greta Weaver, a second-year medical student, agrees.

“I just enjoyed getting to know the home owners -- and it's great to see how much they liked having their yard brightened up with some flowers,” she said. “It’s important for us as medical students to stay in touch with what is going on in the community, and what better way to do it than actually go out and work with people.”

Another chance to connect came at noon when medical students and residents sat down for lunch at Christamore House.

“Everyone’s always so appreciative,” said Cantor. One resident helped by Weaver was especially grateful since she could no longer beautify her yard personally due to age, a challenged faced by many residents identified as needing assistance.

In addition to reaching out to the community, Cantor pointed out that the event provides medical students an important opportunity to practice their leadership skills, as everyone who volunteers as a team leader is expected to recruit enough fellow students and friends for one to two homes. Although most participants are students, anyone can volunteer.

“What’s nice about the teams is the leaders are medical students but they can recruit anyone -- friends, relatives, family members, other faculty members, staff,” she said.

In fact, Cantor notes she volunteered the first time as an undergraduate at the invitation of her boyfriend, Rob. Today, they’re married.

“We’re just trying to say we’re all part of the same community,” she said. “We want to bridge that gap.”

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